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Ometepe Island (Nicaragua)

Archaeology of Lake Nicaragua


Petroglyph in Ometepe island, Nicaragua

Petroglyph in Ometepe island, Nicaragua



Ometepe is the name of two small islands in the middle of Lake Nicaragua (Nicaragua), the largest lake in Central America. These islands were formed by the peaks of two volcanoes and connected by a short isthmus. This area is part of the Greater Nicoya subregion, one of the richest archaeological zones in Central America.

At the time of the Spanish invasion of Nicaragua, in 1524, the Greater Nicoya was occupied by three aboriginal groups: Mangue, Orotiña and Nicarao or Nicaragua. A fourth group called Bagaces occupied a smaller portion of Guanacaste, in northwestern Costa Rica. The Nicarao (a Nahuatl-speaking group, a language spoken in Central Mexico) arrived and occupied the Isla of Omotepe probably during the Postclassic period. The word Ometepe is, in fact, a Nahuatl word that means “two mountains” referring to the two volcanic peaks that dominate the islands. However, the first occupation of the island dated at least as long ago as 1300 BC, during the local Dinarte phase.

Archaeological Research at Ometepe

The first archaeological excavations in the island of Ometepe were carried out in 1881. Archaeologist J. Bransford excavated near the town of Moyogalpa, in the Luna Hacienda, recovering many funerary urns dating between 800 and 1350 AD.

At the beginning of the 1960s, archaeologists Gordon Willey and Albert Norweb excavated the site of La Cruz, finding huge amounts of ceramic fragments and turtle bones.

More long-term, systematic works were carried out in Ometepe by the German archaeologist Wolfgang Haberland, who in 1958 excavated a tomb in Moyogalpa which he considered to be the burial of a shaman. Later, with the help of Peter Schmidt, he surveyed more that 50 sites, finding many petroglyphs; carried out test excavations in 10 of the sites. One of these was the important cemetery site of Los Angeles.

Current archaeological research in the island are being carried out by the Ometepe Archaeological Project, directed by Suzanne Baker, a passionate, activist archaeologist. To date, the project has recorded more than 70 new sites with more than 1000 petroglyphs; the fieldwork has a large and established volunteer component.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Greater Nicoya, the guide to Ancient Mesoamerica and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Lange, Frederick W. (editor) 1996 Paths to Central American Prehistory. University of Colorado Press, Boulder.

Lange F.W. and D. Stone (eds.), The Archaeology of Lower Central America. School of American Research, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

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